Ozias Humphry papers

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Ozias Humphry papers





Extent & medium

8 volumes

Historical Background

Humphry's career need only be sketched briefly here; the letters themselves provide the details. Between 1764 and 1773 he worked as a very successful miniature painter in London. In 1773 he went to Italy with Romney and studied chiefly in Rome and Florence where he made many friends amongst the English artists. On his return to England in 1777, he painted in oils, but his success was only modest, certainly compared to that of Romney, and in 1784 he decided to go to India for a few years, in which time he believed he would make a handsome fortune. He stayed in Calcutta, painting in miniature, but as his profits were not as great as he had expected, he went to Lucknow hoping to earn a vast sum painting the Nabob of Oudh. Unfortunately, the Nabob only gave him a token payment and a bond for the remainder, which it soon became clear he had no intention of honouring. Humphry's claim on the Nabob and his various attempts to recover the debt are described in an introduction to Vol.VIII. He left Calcutta in 1787 without a fortune and with his health much impaired. A few years after his return, his eyesight, which had troubled him before, began to fail and he turned to crayon painting. He became an Academician in 1791 and Painter in Crayons to His Majesty in 1792. In 1798, his sight deteriorated sharply and he never painted again.

Content Description

The volumes cover the whole of Humphry's life and include not only letters received, but draft and copy-out letters, and even memoranda written at crucial moments of his life, explaining (and justifying) his actions. Humphry must have been very methodical, and have taken great care of his papers for such a collection to have survived his many moves in London, and his travels in Italy and India. At least twice (Hu/6/127 and Hu/7/51) he sorted out his papers and destroyed some. The collection is coherent and leaves no gaps in Humphry's career, though it is clear from Upcott's introductory remarks in volume I that many of the letters from "the Nobility, Artists and Literary Characters" were syphoned into his own collection. With an eye to posterity, Humphry dictated several versions of an autobiography; these were taken down by William Upcott and Humphry's nephew, William Ozias Humphry, and are in volume one.

The letters illustrate each phase in Humphry's life: his early friendships in London with James Paine the younger, George Romney, Henry Spicer, Rev. Thomas Carwardine and Joe Green; artistic circles in Italy where he met Thomas Jenkins, Henry Tresham, Charles Townley, Thomas and Elizabeth Banks, the Poggis and the Hadfields. His relations with patrons, chief among whom were the Dukes of Gloucester and Dorset, and with clients are well documents. They were not always smooth. Humphry was extremely sensitive about his status, inordinately proud of his ancestry and always ready to take offence at possible slights. He retained strong links with the West Country. He was born in Honiton and his mother, who at one time managed a lace-making business, lived there all her life. He was friendly with many local families, with James White and William Jackson of Exeter, and the talented Linley family with whom he lodged in bath before coming to London. His letters from India, and those written to him after his home-coming are fascinating - full of details about life in India, the fortunes of other artists there, scandals, anecdotes and political comment.

His various romances are all fully chronicled. In 1771 he proposed to James Paine's daughter Charlotte but was rudely treated by Paine who was celebrated for his avarice and demanded a settlement quite beyond Humphry's means. Humphry was a close friend of Paine's son James, who was estranged from his father for many years. While in Italy Humphry met the talented and beautiful Maria Hadfield who wrote him a series of long and interested letters. According to Elizabeth Banks (Hu/2/68) he actually proposed to her regardless of her lack of fortune but was turned down. She later married Richard Cosway, a leading miniature painter and no painter and no friend of Humphry's (Hu/3/32). In 1784 on the eve of his departure for India, he reached an understanding with Mary Boydell, niece of Alderman Boydell the engraver, but they were never formally engaged; this was at Humphry's particular desire - he may well have hoped to meet an India merchant's daughter wealthier than Miss Boydell. However, it was she who broke off the relationship, no doubt dampened by a stream of lugubrious and self-pitying letters from Humphry who was not earning the fortune he had expected. There is hardly any mention in the collection of Delly Wickers, the mother of his son, William Upcott, who is always carefully referred to as his "Godson".

Humphry took great pride in the career of his younger brother, Rev. William Humphry; he obtained for him the patronage of the Duke of Dorset, assisted him financially when he married Elizabeth Woodgate, a member of a landed Kent family, and he was very fond of his many nephews and nieces.

In his latter years, Humphry became partially blind, and his diminishing income made it necessary for him to live very modestly. He was forever short of money, but was generous in helping those poorer than himself and, although his letters are despondent, he was clearly an entertaining and sociable person and had a wide circle of friends including Benjamin West, James Wyatt, John Trenchard, James White and the Daniells; he was often asked to stay with friends in the country, and was a welcome visitor at the homes of Lords Clarenden, Egremont and Salisbury.

Although his name and works are not now widely known, his papers are one of the most important sources for any study of artistic circles in the second half of the eighteenth century.


The papers were inherited by Humphry's natural son, William Upcott, a noted antiquary and collector of autograph letters. They were auctioned with the rest of Upcott's collection after his death in 1846 and disappeared. The British Library holds material that comprised a part of Upcott's collection.

As made clear elsewhere, Upcott did remove elements of the archive that he inherited. Evidence in the Anderdon catalogues (AND) makes it clear that some material found its way into the collection of Dawson Turner, and subsequently to Anderdon.

Acquisition Details

The volumes re-emerged in 1878, and were purchased by the Royal Academy for £20.


The papers were bound into eight volumes and numbered by William Upcott. Where possible Upcott's numbers have been kept, except in volume III where he used the same series of number twice. The letters are arranged more or less chronologically.

All copies and drafts of letters may be assumed to be in Humphry's hand unless otherwise stated, except in volume VIII which contains papers relating to Humphry's claim on the Nabob of Oudh. Many of the letters and draft replies are endorsed by Humphry or Upcott with the date or a note on the sender or recipient; these were probably added towards the end of Humphry's life and are not always accurate. In addition to correspondence, there are a number of original sketches and proof engraving.

Associated Material

British Library, Add. MSS. 15, 958-69, sketch books of India; 21, 113 catalogue of William Upcott's papers, with letters from Humphry; 22, 947-52 copy book, memorandum books, cash books etc.

India Office Records: records of Humphry's transactions with the East India Company; records concerning his claim against the Nabob of Oudh.

Kent Archives Office: Woodgate papers (U1050): NRA report #15214

G.C. Williamson's personal copy of his biography of Humphry is housed in Winterthur Museum Library, 5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, DE 19735, USA. The volume includes correspondence generated by Williamson in his reasearch and a letter from Laura Waldegrave to Humphry dated 1778. ND497 H92. This information kindly provided by Linda Martin-Schaff, January 2015.


Life and Works of Ozias Humphry, G.C. Williamson, 1918, London.

British artists in India, 1760-1820, Sir William Foster, Walpole Society XIX, 1931, Oxford.

Life and Works of Ozias Humphry, G.C. Williamson, 1918, London.

Pleasures of the Imagination, John Brewer, 1997, London